Disclaimer: Beware – today I dive into a more technical piece of work versus my more poetic stuff 🙂
I always love it when new terms of art are coined. The coupling of words and formation of short phrases to describe something, a concept, possibly already known or possibly a new formulation. It seems to be the perpetual motion of researchers, politicians, and wordsmiths alike, to boil a concept down into a few short syllables to describe something of monumental proportions.
Well once the label or buzzword or soundbite is created, no one has any need to reference the material supporting it, or even read and digest it for that matter. It sort of becomes a “given.” It is a self-explanatory definition that generally becomes universally accepted.
It is the same philosophy journalists use when they try to tell the whole story in just the headline. Reading the story becomes superfluous, and with lowering attention spans many readers don’t make it past those headlines.
You might even compare this practice to that of our ancient ancestors drawing pictograms and petroglyphs on cave walls. Reducing an idea to its most elementary form in an attempt to communicate.
Actually, I think images may even be more powerful than words in the sense that they convey detail that encompasses all of the senses that can cross language barriers. Some days, I would prefer petroglyphs to the written and spoken language 😊
But, should simple or even complex phraseology be given such deference?
I’m not sure. Such practices have the potential to oversimplify. And in the case of journalists, many times their stories don’t match their headlines – not even close.
So where am I going with this? Well, I stumbled upon a new term this week involving our aging brains. “Neurocognitive Scaffolding.”
Brain science has always fascinated me for as much as we’ve learned and as much as remains a mystery. After all, our very consciousness still hasn’t been positively correlated to the “mind” or a “physical brain structure.”
It is arguable that our consciousness is that particle of awareness gifted to us by the Source, our spirit, whereas the brain is just a complex computer regulating our bodily functions. The two completely divorced from each other, yet intertwined within the physical form.
And speaking of our physical form, just what is this new sesquipedalian* phrase, “cognitive scaffolding,” supposed to mean? Sure sounds like a physical structure taking shape.
You may recall other posts I’ve made about the way our brains function. How we think on the move. How we’re wired. How our attention span is limited. How our physical body may have its own memory apart from our brain. And how our memories are processed through the stages of encoding, storage, retrieval, and forgetting.
Well with the theory of brain scaffolding, we’re not only back to memory, we’re dealing with the present mental processing and reacting to immediate sensory input with our aging brain structures.
So the big brains tell us that converting short-term memory to long-term memory requires:
consolidation (bundling of information with resistance to it being amended);
retrieval and reconstruction (which sometimes includes us filling in gaps that can be totally inaccurate);
repetition (which can take the form of elaborate rehearsal where we repeat a story to our friends over and over again);
interval spacing (repeating a memory of an event at certain spaced intervals increases the strength of retention);
long-term potentiation (where repeated stimulus programs neural pathways to respond quicker with less and less stimulus).
That all sounds pretty complex, but our brains don’t have to analyze what they’re doing, they just do it.
Now what happens as we age? Why are we so forgetful of our immediate experiences, and at the same time, we have vivid and detailed recall of events from long, long ago? How can we retain memories of events that are further and further in the past and not being repeated or reinforced in any way? And perhaps, much more importantly, how do our aging brains process our immediate surroundings and interpret the present moment?
Brain scientists tell us that with age, our brain structures shrink, neurotransmitter receptors die off, and destructive neurofibrillary plaques and tangles form so that some fifty percent of us that manage to reach the age of 85 have some form of dementia to look forward to. But counteracting this normal intellectual decline, the latest research seems to indicate that scaffolding (a supportive framework) is constructed to strengthen existing neuropathways and connections and form new ones.
“[T]his mechanism is strengthened by cognitive engagement, exercise, and low levels of default network engagement.” And this structural compensatory mechanism, documented in functional brain imaging, all takes place in the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain. On the surface of our brains.
So, if I could draw a pictogram of this process, it would look something like my feature pic with the United States Capitol Dome representing our brains. An intricate scaffolding is constructed to surround it and support what lies underneath, but what’s underneath gets less and less usage as it actually physically decays.
Or saying it the way the brain researchers say it: The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition “posits that behavior is maintained at a relatively high level with age, despite neural challenges and functional deterioration, due to the continuous engagement of compensatory scaffolding—the recruitment of additional circuitry that shores up declining structures whose functioning has become noisy, inefficient, or both.”
So it would seem that our brains with all of their neuroplasticity continually build new pathways to receive, interpret, and retain information on top of those that have deteriorated or become nonfunctional making us reasonably coherent as we become octogenarians.
At least, this is a theory based upon how neural pathways light up with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
What do you think?
Is this all simply a structural electro-mechanical process?
Could the spirit play a role?
Or is it really still just a big mystery that new buzzwords can’t explain away?
Photo: A shot of the US Capitol from a trip I took in 2015. I suppose I could make all kinds of puns about the Capitol’s refurbishment and politicians with aging brains, but I’ll just leave all of those to your imaginations 🙂
*”Sesquipedalian.” I chose this word as a pun for its own irony. The term means using long words, literally translating to a foot and a half long. But it is unnecessarily verbose and complicated in its own right.
Past Posts on Brain Stuff:
The book Brain Rules by John Medina,
and the article,
Summary Points from the research article:
- The basic hardware of cognition significantly declines with advanced age, although knowledge and expertise are relatively protected from age-related decline. Neural structure also shows changes. Many brain structures show significant shrinkage, the integrity of the white matter decreases, and dopamine depletion occurs.
- In contrast to the age-related declines in cognitive function and brain structure, functional brain activity increases with age, particularly in the frontal cortex. The proposed scaffolding theory of aging and cognition suggests that this increased functional activity is due to compensatory scaffolding—the recruitment of additional circuitry with age that shores up declining structures whose function has become noisy, inefficient, or both.
- Prefrontal cortex is the most flexible structure in the brain, and brain scaffolding processes in the aging brain largely reside in this structure.
- Scaffolding is the brain’s response to cognitive challenge and is not unique to aging. Aging simply results in more frequent cognitive challenges at lower levels of intensity.
- Scaffolded networks that develop with age may be less efficient than the original, direct, and finely honed networks developed at younger ages.
- The aged brain is less efficient at generating scaffolding, and significant pathology (as occurs in advanced Alzheimer’s disease) may entirely limit scaffolding operations.
- The causes of cognitive aging are multifactorial, and individuals will vary in both the magnitude of decline and the amount of protective scaffolding that can be activated. Presumably, individuals who have exceptionally high cognitive ability in old age would be those with low genetic susceptibility to biological aging and a high level of scaffolding generation.
- Scaffolding is promoted by cognitive activity. A wealth of evidence in the animal literature suggests that changes in cortical structures can occur as a result of external challenge, and growing evidence suggests that humans develop scaffolds as a result of stimulating experiences.